On Yom Kippur, I think of my grandmother and the sweaters I didn’t love enough
If I could have apologized, what would I have said? I'm sorry I ran away? I'm sorry I was afraid to see you small and frail?
My Bubbie, my mother's mother, was always chasing me with a flexible yellow tapeline in her hand.
My Bubbie was a knitter. She wanted to make things for me: sweaters, hats, vests. So she followed me around, begging me to stand still and lift my arms so she could wrap the tape around my chest, my waist, my hips. She jotted the measurements on a scrap of paper.
"Do you want blue? Purple? What color is good? And the sleeves — with a cuff or without? Cables in the front? Buttons or no buttons? You like a V-neck or a round one?" Then she was off to the knitting store, and back with balls of yarn in whatever color I'd requested, whatever pattern caught my adolescent fancy. Her needles flashed and clicked; she was a deft knitter, and a fast one. Soon I'd have a nubby new sweater to stuff in my dresser drawer.
I wore those sweaters with a twist of embarrassment and pride. My Bubbie loved me, and this was how she showed her love: in cabled stitches, ribbed plackets, buttons sewn on by hand. She never said a pattern was too complicated or time-consuming. She knitted what I asked; her work was flawless.
And yet, the sweaters were never quite what I'd envisioned, never as smart-looking on me as they were on the blue-eyed, slim-hipped, smooth-haired models in the catalog. My sweaters bunched at the waist or landed at the widest part of my thighs. I thought they made me look fat and old-fashioned.
But I wore them, all through high school and into college, and I was probably wearing one of them on the March day when my mother called to say that Bubbie was in the hospital again. Six months earlier, she'd tumbled down a flight of wooden steps, and she'd been in and out of rehab. When I talked to her from my dorm room, her voice sounded small. "I'm so-so, sweetheart; how are you? How's school? And your roommates?"
Now Bubbie was having small strokes and symptoms of congestive heart failure, and no one could say exactly what was wrong or how long she'd be in the hospital or what it would take to make her better.
It was almost spring break. A couple of long papers — one on Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, another for an urban studies class — were all that lay between me and my last college vacation. It was senior year, the final stretch before saying goodbye to the leafy bounds of my campus and diving into what we all called, without irony, "the real world."
For this ultimate fling, I'd planned a road trip to Orlando with friends. There would be endless sunlight and strawberry daiquiris and maybe, if I played my cards right, a kiss from the guy I'd been flirting with all year.
I could imagine the smell of Bain de Soleil, the ocean's salty slap, the hot dogs we'd barbecue on the patio grill. I'd been swimming disciplined laps each morning in the university pool, hoping to look trim in a bathing suit. There would be homework, sure, but at least I could read Moby-Dick on the beach.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" my mother asked after we visited my Bubbie at the very start of spring break. I was supposed to leave the next day: take a train to Baltimore, pick up my aunt's van in Columbia, Md., then drive it to D.C. to gather my friends before heading down I-95. I was already packed: Frisbees and pretzels, bathing suits and flip-flops.
That afternoon, in the hospital room, my Bubbie was pale, small, quiet. When I showed her a skirt I was making — a light cotton fabric, thin blue-and-black stripes with a gathered waist — she smiled but didn't speak. My mother and I held her hands. "You'll feel her start to get colder," a nurse remarked, and something chilled inside me. I had to get out of there: the room with its brown-edged carnations in a plastic vase, its Styrofoam cup of apple juice, and its half-closed blinds.
"I really want to go," I pleaded. "I've been counting on this." My mother did not argue.
So we went — three college pals, my cousin and his best friend. We drove all night, toward Orlando, the Magic Kingdom, Tomorrowland. Toward pink crenellated castles and small, small worlds with relentlessly cheerful sound tracks. I was 21 and terrified: Of what was happening to my Bubbie. Of the panicked look on my mother's face. Of the real world.
Somewhere in South Carolina, when Tina was driving and Dan was riding shotgun and my cousin and his friend were slumped in the middle seats, the guy I'd been flirting with all year did kiss me. It might have been an accident — the van lurching forward, our bodies bumping together in the back. He didn't apologize, but he didn't lean in for a reprise, either.
The next morning, we tumbled from the car into a haze of sticky air. Bougainvillea as big as my head, sunlight so sharp I had to squint. And a message: Call home immediately.
My cousin and I flew back to Philadelphia together, while our friends remained in Florida. I spent spring break sitting shivah in my parents' house, shoes off and mirrors covered. I remember endless platters of bagels and whitefish, the phone ringing constantly. Each night, I cried quietly into my pillow. Each morning, I woke up, forgot for a moment, then remembered all over again that my Bubbie was gone.
If I could have apologized, what would I have said? I'm sorry I ran away? I'm sorry I was afraid to see you small and frail? I'm sorry I was so petrified of death — and, really, of life, because life (I know this, now) is veined with loss?
I can imagine my Bubbie's response. She might have pressed her soft, creased hand over mine: "Shah. Shayna maidele. Don't worry. You're a good girl." She would have forgiven me while the words were still wet on my tongue.
But every Yom Kippur (which begins tonight at sundown), when my rabbi reminds us that the Hebrew word usually translated as "sin" actually means something more like "missing the mark," I flinch in my seat, still hot with shame about the spring I ran away, about the bulky, hand-knit sweaters I didn't love enough, about all the ways I've failed to measure up.